Within a year, I’ve had a chance to visit China twice. Well, Hong Kong & Macau don’t really consider themselves as China but the fact remains that they’re the special administrative regions of China. As an Indian (this may be true across nationalities too), China has been a fascinating, mysterious place. The most common thoughts that used to occur in my mind when I thought of China (& this holds for many more like me):
- China has too many people.
- The Chinese eat anything that walks.
- An Indian will have a problem in finding edible food.
- The language barrier is significant.
- The major cities are heavily polluted.
- The Chinese are rude & unfriendly.
- The Chinese are xenophobic.
A few of these turned out to be canards while the rest got validated. My observations are based on the three cities I visited – Macau, Hong Kong & Beijing. Thus, my sample size is small but hopefully not way off the mark. So here goes what I detected and felt about china.
China Has Too Many People
Yes it does. It is next to impossible to go to a tourist attraction & expect to click a photograph with no people in the frame. At times, it is even impossible to see the attraction. A lot of travel blogs suggest reaching early which I didn’t manage to do. Perhaps this will help.
Can’t. Avoid. People. Neither at the Forbidden City.
Can’t. Avoid. People. Nor at the Summer Palace.
The ‘too many people’ manifests itself in the scramble for public transport too. Hailing a cab can be quite a task but using a subway is easy, cost-effective & I didn’t find it too crowded. I’ve seen worse in India 🙂
Take the Subway. Cheap & Convenient.
The Chinese Eat Anything That Walks
Not entirely true. The Chinese do eat a lot of meat but most of it is conventional stuff like chicken, beef, pork, seafood, fish, duck etc. at most mid-segment restaurants I visited, there was nothing that was repulsive to read or look at. Hint: dogs, insects, reptiles etc. However, street markets and a type of restaurants called ‘hotpots’ had ‘interesting’ food available. All the horrors that were in the mind appeared in front of my eyes.
A Dish Containing Scorpions. & No, I Didn’t Eat It.
An Indian Will Have a Problem in Finding Edible Food
Partially true. There are adequate food options available, thanks to the presence of American, Italian, & even Indian restaurants. You can find vegetarian restaurants too. There are enough McDonald’s, Starbucks etc. We had a lot of ready-to-eat food with us but gladly, we didn’t have to consume that.
You can find Chinese dishes with conventional meats like chicken, fish & seafood. However, the Chinese dishes taste nothing like what we get in India. India has its own brand of Chinese, fondly called tandoori Chinese, which is full of sauces and condiments. In comparison, authentic Chinese will appear bland to the Indian palate.
Also, I (& my companions) found a particular pungent smell in all Chinese dishes. Perhaps it’s the use of fish sauce or oyster sauce. The smell was too overpowering for us to ignore. We minimized our intake of Chinese food consequently.
The Language Barrier Is Significant
Yes it is. 90% of the people we came across did not understand a single word in English. Even basic phrases like ‘thank you’, ‘excuse me’, ‘hi’, ‘hello’ were alien to them. Surprisingly, this was the case in the hospitality sector too. A few of the servers who waited on us did not understand English at all. The only English they understood & could say was ‘no English’! We’d to point to the menu to order our drinks & dinners. & if we wanted any customization, god help us!
For cab drivers, we carried the Chinese names of our destinations. Thankfully, all of them could read Mandarin. This is a major variation from India. Here, even a rickshaw puller understands Basic English words/ phrases like ‘thank you’, ‘okay’, ‘hello’ etc.
Amongst the remaining 10%, the grasp of English was elementary at best though I’m sure the situation would be different amongst the crowd that works for multinational corporations.
The Major Cities Are Heavily Polluted
Not true. At least not for an Indian. Compared to Delhi NCR, the air quality in both Beijing & Hong Kong was better, though there was a little bit of haze. For travelers coming from developed countries, this may be a worry & thus, as advised by the western travel blogs, it may make sense for them to carry masks.
Apart from the air, I found all the three cities to be impeccably clean. In Beijing, I observed the roads being washed twice a day. The garbage was collected almost on an hourly basis. There was no difference in people’s behavior though. Like Indians, they continued to spit, throw garbage etc. at their whim & fancy. But the discipline of the sanitation department was exemplary.
The Chinese Are Rude & Unfriendly
Hem – haw! Yes, the Chinese appear to be rude because (i) they don’t smile on seeing you (ii) they talk in a blunt, direct manner.
I believe their way of talking stems from their language. As far as I understand, Mandarin does not have grammar & syntax. It is more of words put together to make sense. So for a Chinese talking in English – s/ he processes what s/ he wants to say in Mandarin in her/ his head –> s/ he translates that to English in her/ his head –> s/ he speaks/ replies in English. This makes their English also blunt & devoid of the niceties that we usually put into it.
About the smiling bit, I agree they should do it more.
The Chinese Are Xenophobic
Assume you are not allowed to meet anybody all your life. You are confined to your house & can interact only with your family members. Your family members don’t step out either. You have a view of the outside world only through your window. Then, suddenly, when you turn 25 years old, you’re told you can step out & even let outsiders enter your house. Will this affect your behavior towards the outside world? Sure it’ll. Through that narrow window, you’d formed an image. You’re now being subjected to other images, a few of which contradict the earlier image & a few which validate. Wouldn’t you take time to absorb it all & adapt to it?
Apart from dispelling/ validating the above preconceived notions, I formed a few independent opinions too. Succinctly put:
- Beijing is a cleaner, richer version of New Delhi.
- The Chinese love big cars – the Audi, the BMW & the Mercedes. These’re almost every second car that you see on the road. But the Chinese have no qualms buying these big names secondhand. (This explains the ‘almost every second car’ bit.)
- Hong Kong is the not- so- glamorous cousin of Singapore. Both are financial hubs filled with expats. But Hong Kong has a ‘China’ flavor to it.
- The Chinese love to talk. They can yap all day long. Given the harshness of their language, this can sound quite jarring to the ears.
- Chinese women/ girls love their bling. They can give the Rajouri aunties a run for their money any day.
- Macau isn’t just a gambler’s paradise. It’s a lot to keep culture & history lovers occupied too.
- Since Hong Kong used to be a British colony, I was under the impression that the place would be full of English eateries. But, sadly, I didn’t find any place that served the quintessential British food. In fact, my food struggle was greater in Hong Kong than in Beijing.
- The Chinese are enterprising. Every second home on the outskirts of Beijing housed a small-scale industry of sorts. From these small factories, they supply goods all across the world. Despite the language barrier, they’ve managed to trade with the entire world.
- Not talking in financial terms, but India is still light years away from being a China. If we imbibe their discipline, we can think of competing with them.
- Despite their population struggle, their infrastructure is top class. Better put, their infrastructure is managing to keep up with the population pressure. Perhaps they plan first, execute later.
11. China, as a whole, has a rich history but it’s still virgin territory for outsiders. The Chinese love their historical places, & they accord the respect that such places deserve.
12. The Chinese love their nightlife. The world may think otherwise due to their apparent serious nature but all the cities I visited had quite ‘happening’ entertainment options.
Phew! After 11 months of my HK-Macau travel & three months of my Beijing travel, I’ve finally managed to put this down. To summarize my sentiment, there’s lots to be explored about China, in China. The expanse of the country ensures that a lifetime will be inadequate to do so. Each small region holds a story & I’ll be lucky if I get to discover at least a couple more…